Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Origins of an Industry: Cold Warriors, Hackers, and Suits 1960-1984

In the chapter entitled "Origins of an Industry, Cold Warriors, Hackers and Suits 1960-1984," authors Kline, Dyer-Witheford and de Peuter provide an excellent overview of and context for the development of the video game industry over the past almost fifty years. The authors quickly dispel an apparently commonly held belief that the creative, profit-driven entrepreneur (think the Silicon Valley of the 1980s) has been the primary innovator in the computing (and, thus, the video game) industry.

Rather, the authors make the case that these dual industries (which I'll refer to simply as the computing industry) were products of a generation before, a direct result of Cold War preoccupations (e.g. the nuclear arms race; the technology push symbolized by what came to be known as the "Space Race") that brought together the military, academia and industry in a collective R&D team the repercussions of which were eventually felt in the popular culture via the innovations spurred by this collaboration.

Within the walls of academia, a group of hitherto mostly unnoticed technology geeks who had both a special interest in the emergent field of computing and access to the multi-million dollar, room-filling machines began to come out of the shadows and into prominence within the new paradigm of the military-academic-industrial partnership ("complex," as the authors perhaps more polemically term it). Primarily young men, these "hackers," as they came to be known, possessed a technical prowess that was combined with a larger-than-average dose of curiosity and desire to be hands-on with technology, and their experimentations became critical in the quest for innovation that, curiously, happened largely outside of the confines of the traditional scientific research paradigm. The authors do point out that much of this innovation, funded by governmental defense concerns in so many cases, came at the cost of an uneasy alliance, for many of the original hackers were stridently anti-establishment in the sense that their ethos demanded an adherence to an ethic that ran contrary to one that had the country embroiled in Vietnam, for example.

The authors go on to explore how a variety of elements commonly considered to be fringe cultural phenomena, such as science fiction, various types of non-mainstream gaming, an interest in problem-solving, and so on (what I like to collectively refer to, sans judgment, as "nerd culture") began to move from the margins and influence the mainstream, largely due to the hackers now engaged in influential technological innovation in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In particular, the introduction of role-playing games (particularly of Dungeons & Dragons) had a massive impact on nerd culture, in general, and hacker culture, in particular, and variations on both the theme and the nature of those games quickly appeared on mainframe computers at universities across the countries, a portent of gaming things to come.

Meanwhile, post-war America had developed into a prosperous land of suburban plenty, creating a fertile ground for the gaming industry to come in that it provided the physical space (e.g. malls), the youth culture (the post-war baby boom generation and one generation beyond) and the disposable income that put a TV in every home and the leisure time to watch it. As many former hackers migrated beyond the walls of academe and into industry (and here we see the rise of the Silicon Valley that many must think of when they think of the computing industry), these factors began to synthesize in such a way that the country and the culture were ripe for the new forms of entertainment that video games would soon provide. The authors identify three key "paths," or inroads used by video games to entrench themselves into the fabric of American society. They were:

  1. Arcades: Atari (with Pong) first made it big here. Arcades grew up quickly in the 1970s and malls, also exploding at this time, provided the perfect place for them.
  2. The Home Console: A number of gaming consoles for the home were created in the mid-1970s, blending in seamlessly with that other ubiquitous technology device, the television. A home version of Pong made a bit of an early smash, but it wasn't until microchips could be placed inside swapable cartridges that the home consoles really took off.
  3. The Home Computer: Initially, market differentiation, technological limitations and price meant that home computers were not seen as a gaming device, yet it did not take long for game-eager home computer users to begin to use the machines in this way.

The chapter closes with a discussion of the major players in the video game world of the early 1980s (what is widely considered video gaming's "Golden Age"). Already discussed, Atari became a leader in video gaming via several arcade hits but also with its hugely popular home console and its arcade games ported into cartridges for home play. The advent of the 1980s also saw the introduction of Pac-Man, the game that changed everything and spawned a cultural revolution that saw crossover from video games into just about every other realm of media and consumerism imaginable. This also marked a point in time, the authors note, in which development of the gaming experience and its entertainment value became just as important (or perhaps surpassed) as improving technological aspects of the games. The authors also describe the game developers themselves, who sound surprisingly like the hackers of MIT from just fifteen to twenty years before.

As early game innovators like Atari sold out to larger media conglomerates, new upstart companies rose in their wake, and Activision, Electronic Arts and others stepped in to take their place. These new companies were often set up as game design houses solely, breaking from the old model that saw hardware companies with an in-house cadre of game developers working to sell more of that company's hardware via successful games. It was at this time that the game developers themselves, often fiercely individual hacker types, began to forge their own identities as game designers, introducing easter eggs into their creations and becoming reflective about their work such that issues of aesthetics, virtuality, and artistic merit began to come to the fore. Designers also began to place a great deal of import on the seamless intersection of graphics, interface and software. In short, games became more and more sophisticated.

Improvements in graphics, networked play and other game innovations thrilled developers but also did not escape the watchful eye of the military, who saw in games an opportunity for training of its personnel, the ability to run extremely nuanced simulations, to try out tactical strategies, and so on, and who continued to implement video game-like environments as training tools throughout the 1980s and 1990s. The authors point out that this interplay between the military and gaming industry was "a sophisticated way of getting the entertainment sector to subsidize the costs of military innovation and training."

The authors then discuss another merging of sectors; in this case, the video game industry with larger corporate America (media companies and the toy industry, in particular). In today's marketplace, it is common to think about large media conglomerates and the synergies between video gaming and, for example, movies or other media. But in the 1980s, these notions were new and, ultimately, very risky. For a number of reasons, the game industry experienced a severe slump in the mid-1980s, and many corporate giants that had eagerly gobbled up game companies ended up losing a great deal of money on the deals. Some companies disappeared altogether during this period.

In sum, this first rise (and subsequent fall) of the video game industry had many long-term and lasting effects. It served as a conduit for the emergence of hacker and nerd culture from the shadows into the mainstream as a major cultural and economic force. It whetted the American public's appetite for entertainment media delivered to them in their homes in an electronic format. It created demand for ever-increasing, exponential technological innovation. It also upheld a longstanding (and perhaps ominous, to some) partnership between entertainment, technological and military development. The many outcomes of gaming's early days can be clearly traced through this article, which offers an interesting and extremely comprehensive introduction to the socio-cultural history of video games and suggests that their implications go far beyond a bit of light entertainment and are deeply entrenched in many important aspects of American society and institutional structure.


Eric M said...

This article is really cool because it paints a picture that I didn't think about regarding the origins of video games. The idea of a tripod of military, academics, and industry is an interesting idea. Would the video game industry have skyrocketed like it did without one of the legs of the tripod? It certainly doesn't seem like it could have according to the author. The military leg is often left out of the picture when giving credit to the rise of video games, which is sad.

Adrian said...

I think I mentioned earlier how I would have been more interested in a focus on ARPANET and the Cold War stuff. Obviously, it delved into that, but I was totally hoping that the whole article was going to be about the topic. I wonder, for example, how much current Army/US Military involvement in games/simulations is intertwined. We got into it a little today in the PBS video, and I'd be curious to see more there...

Nick S said...

I enjoyed reading about the vast historic information on video games in this article. The military factor was also very interesting to me. I was oblivious before this past semester in J201 that the military had anything to do with the beginning of video games. You've got to think they have some insane new invention that we can't even imagine right now.

Jasun said...

While the early days of the video game boom may have been driven by the military/industry/hacker complex, I fear those days may be over. As the law has raced to catch up with the technological innovations, the hacker sub-culture has been even further marginalized. Hopefully I will be proven wrong, as having the hacker sense of "fun" seems to be a driving force of creativity within the field, but given the ever increasing legal barriers and ramifications the future may be a bleak place for video games and innovation.

Jon72585 said...

I'd have to say that this was one of the more interesting articles I've read for class, if only because I play a lot of Call of Duty 4. One arguement that I've heard a lot lately, and one that I don't put a lot of stock in, is that cames like Call of Duty are made specifically to desensitize kids to violence and make them think the military is good. I find that while I play games like COD all I usually think is, "Wow, isn't war screwed up? This is a fun game, but I would never wish this upon any actual human being."

But I liked that this article shows that military funding can lead to (sometimes unintentionally) advances in areas of pure creativity. As Downing said in class the other day, the military doesn't just hand out money to MIT anymore. I can't help but feel like the world would be a better place if they still did.

Sarah. R. said...

I actually played a lot of Call of Duty: Frontline on the PS2, and the reason was, as you said, not because "wow, war is cool," but actually because - in part - I thought it was a really interesting way to explore WWII history. I was also just coming off a junket of watching Band of Brothers at the time. Finally, it made me feel closer to my grandfather, who was a WWII vet. I never did tell him about that game, though, because I didn't want him to find it offensive or belittling of what his experience was like (he was actually in the Pacific Theater, just to be pedantic about it), but when I played it, I actually viewed it as an homage, as strange as that may sound.

rtaylor said...

I was completely oblivious to the origins of video gaming. Previous to this class all I really knew was Pong and anything before that was irrelevant to me. I had no idea that the military and goverment played such a role in the development of necessary technologies for video games. Also the word "hacker" was finally presented to me with its primary intention instead of today's connotation. I also play a bunch of Call of Duty 4 and while it has increased my curiosity about guns and weapons, I have no desire to use them to harm other people. Nor does it put me in the mood to rampage.

Marlon Heimerl said...

This article is crucial for this course as you pretty much can't have a technological breakthrough in the last 50 years without the Cold War. From packet-switching for the internet to avoid a system shut down in the case of a nuclear war to simulating the possibilities of a nuclear attack or any number occurrences of the imagination, the innovation of video games ties thoroughly into the overall narrative of Cold War technological advancement.

I like the part where they talk about the networking of games working to accelerate the "confluence of war and games." It is interesting to compare the original networking of computers as a conduit for game play compared to the internet today in role playing and shoot-em-up games.

Sarah. R. said...

One of the things I wonder is what Adrian is getting at a bit, which is how many folks in the class know about the origins of the Internet (Adrian has namechecked it in his comments; it was called ARPANET and was the direct result of Cold War military funding of academic research). Is this common knowledge among undergrads? Among people in general? I don't know...

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